A Thought Provoking Take on the Elite Art World (and a Biography of Bernard Berenson to boot)

I have read a number of biographies written by Washington author, Meryle Secrest. There is obviously something about her style that I like. I particularly enjoyed her memoirs, “Shoot the Widow”, which I have previously reported on.

One of her early books was a biography of Bernard Berenson, “Being Bernard Berenson”. It was her second book, the first being a delightful biography of artist Romaine Brooks.

To me Berenson was an elite art critic and cultural icon, who had a villa in Italy called I Tatti which now belongs to Harvard. I put him in the same class as, say, Kenneth Clark.
That’s about it.

That’s not the full picture presented by Secrest in her 1979 book. Berenson was in fact born in Lithuania to a relatively poor Jewish family which emigrated to Boston when he was a boy. He found his way to Harvard, where he first began to hide his Jewish past, and became enamored with the Italian Renaissance. He made some very important friends, including the future creator of the Gardner Museum in Boston, and after graduation found his way to Europe where he began to acquire the paintings for Mrs. Gardner that became the basis of her collection.

The book tells the story of Berenson’s career as a critic, and of his personal evolution as an expert in Italian Renaissance art and one of the world’s experts on appraising the artwork, both as to authenticity and value. I had never thought about how difficult it is to authenticate this type of work, and not only because so much of the art is unsigned. In fact, the signature itself is not necessarily dispositive, and artist signatures were often written by others. Secondly, many well known artists had studios where they had assistants, apprentices, etc., and many works of art were products of more than one artist. (This is an issue, today, as well, with certain artists, especially those who work on large, oversized works.) Thirdly, many works of art have been copied and forged, including some that were copied centuries ago. Finally, an extraordinary numbers of art work have been restored, sometimes excessively, over the years, and sometimes the restoration work has actually changed parts of the work in order to conform to then contemporary standards. Most collectors do not have the expertise to judge authenticity for themselves, and it becomes necessary to rely on experts. There is no question but that Berenson was considered an expert, and was considered so when he was still quite young (as he got older, he became less interested in this particular aspect of his career), but there is also no question but that expertise does not guarantee accuracy. There were not only many instances where there was great disagreement as to the provenance of a particular painting, but there were many instances where Berenson (like other experts in the field) which change their mind over time – what they might have concluded an original at one point, they might later conclude was a forgery, based on later obtained intelligence or experience.

This in and of itself is interesting, but what was even more interesting is that Secrest’s conclusions about Berenson’s accuracy as time went on. Berenson lived like a wealthy aristocrat throughout his adult life. But he was not landed gentry and, although he clearly made a lot of money, he needed a lot of money to maintain his lifestyle, and could only get this through maintenance of a large income. At one point in his career, in order to maximize his income, he stopped representing buyers, and started representing sellers, and working on behalf of prominent dealers and galleries, who valued his opinions on works they had for sale. Berenson’s affiliation was often hidden, as was his financial arrangements, which generally were based on a percentage of sale prices. It is Secrest’s opinion that these arrangements compromised his objectivity, so that he could keep his income stream high. (I have not looked to see whether or not this is a general opinion, thirty years later.) She makes quite an attack on his integrity.

Putting this aside, and based on those people and documents that were available to her (Berenson had died 20 years earlier; certain documents were unavailable to her), Secrest did much more than attack Berenson’s integrity. She explored his entire life – his marriage, his relationship with his family back in Boston, his later in life assistant Nicky Mariano, his forced abandonment of I Tatti during World War II and its later restoration, and more. Berenson was clearly a personality type – and he fit this type to the T, elitist, controlling, private, aristocratic in bearing. Reading about him and his life is fascinating.

The book was nominated for a 1980 Pulitzer Prize, although it did not receive the prize. Even thirty plus years after its publication, it is more than worth reading.

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